7:30 am: Coffee in tow, I stand in the hallway awaiting the first stream of buses. I can feel my shoulders sagging. Feel my eyes flickering with fatigue. Just as I am about to emit a lionesque yawn, I feel a small body tackle my knees.
“MS. KAT YOU’RE HERE!” roars one my kindergarten students.
From behind me, another voice pipes up, “Ms. Kat, if music was taken out of Mardi Gras, would people still dance? Why do people say mean things? Why does my skin look like chocolate and yours looks like burnt potatoes?”
I give them lopsided hugs, attempt to answer some of their questions. I forget about my coffee, forget about how tired I was moments ago. Something sparks inside me and I am reminded, for what seems like the first and the five millionth time, why I do the work I do— the crazy hours, the long days, the sleepless nights— it’s for them. The youth of New Orleans. They are the ones who have taught me that ubuntu means compassion but also joy, community but also connection. They are the ones who made me realize my life is bound to the lives of others.
Since moving to New Orleans three years ago to serve as a City Year Corps Member, New Orleans’ youth have incited a deep love inside me that has propelled and forced me to want more for them. It is a ferocious, big sister kind of love—the kind of love that makes me angry when someone pushes them on the playground or when rules and laws are created in direct opposition to their well-being. This work has taught me that my “superpower” is joyful love: giving it, receiving it, choosing it, manifesting it, finding it. And that this joy, this love, is something I strive to find and to bring out in others in my day-to-day life.
I am not saying, by any means, that this work is easy. Far from it.
Louisiana consistently ranks as the worst state in the nation for quality of education.
Consistently the worst for quality of healthcare.
Consistently the worst for quality of life for women and children.
Consistently the worst for levels of race- and gender-based hate crimes.
And, quelle surprise, the number one state for levels of incarceration. Which also links, quelle surprise, to how the state uses 3rd grade reading levels to determine the number of future prison beds.
And this infuriates me. Makes me seethe and mutter under my breath. Makes me throw things at newspaper headlines. And ultimately, made me apply to grad school. Because I was done with coasting on talent and experience to give the students I love the things they need. Done with operating under the assumption that training a teacher is the same as training a venture capitalist. Done with butting my head time and time and time again against this notion that “this is just how things are.”
About half way through our City Year and in the middle of an especially tough week at school, my teammates and I were done. Done with idealism. Done with sugarcoating. We had just finished talking about all the different “-isms” our students faced and will continue to face:
racism, sexism, adultism, ableism, classism, ethnocentrism, colonialism, colorism
The mountain of obstacles seemed to go on and on and on. For lifetimes. Forever.
In the midst of this, one of my teammates pulled out this quote:
Ubuntu: umuntu ngumuntu ngamantu. I am a person through other people. My humanity is inextricably bound to others’.
Ubuntu seems to say, “I see you. I hear you. And I will do everything in my power to help others see and hear you as well.”
UBUNTU: UMUNTU NGUMUNTU NGAMANTU.
I am a person through other people. My humanity is tied to yours.
Ubuntu ubuntu ubuntu